While riding may have started as physical therapy for Claire Yount, soon it became her passion, and this year—thanks to support and inspiration from her trainers and family—she’ll be making her USEF Pony Finals debut.
Yount’s family picked trainer Susan Horn to help get their daughter to USEF Pony Finals after seeing a photograph on her wall, her mother Amy Yount explained.
“We had just moved to Frisco, Texas, and I saw a framed picture in Susan’s office from Pony Finals in Lexington, Kentucky,” Amy said. “I asked her right away if that was something we could do for Claire, and she agreed. I felt like it was a sign that we needed to ride with her.”
Horn, based out of her Prospering Farm in Prosper, Texas, was more than happy to accommodate Amy’s request.
“That’s one of my favorite things to do: prep kids to go to Pony Finals,” Horn said. “It’s an accomplishment to qualify and then to be able to go and compete there. I want to make good riders; it’s a labor of love.”
Claire, now 12, was severely injured at birth when her left brachial plexus nerve was torn, impeding her ability to use her left arm. When Claire was 1, she had a nerve-graft surgery to repair the damage, but because she’d already gone through her first crucial year of growth and development without innervation to that arm, her left arm and shoulder are disabled permanently. Claire cannot lift her left arm past her belly nor straighten it; it has about 30-40% of the strength of her right arm, and it’s shorter than her right arm.
“Claire’s arm stays in an ‘L’ shape, which is really good for riding,” Horn said. “She has really nice form, so the judges rarely notice it.”
Claire has not let the limited function in her left arm hold her back.
“She’s a determined kid,” Amy said. “I’m always impressed by her strength. It was never a disability to us; we just always told her she had to try harder because of it. We never want her to think it will stop her, because if she puts her mind to do something, she can achieve it.”
Creating A Goal
Claire first started riding at age 8, during a visit to her aunt in Pennsylvania. She took a lesson on her cousin’s horse, and the trainer kept reminding Claire to sit up and put her shoulders back. Amy, who had no previous horse experience, quickly realized that riding had the potential to complement the regular PT her daughter been doing her entire life.
“My immediate thought was, ‘Wow, that would be great therapy for her,’ ” Amy said. “At physical therapy, her PT is always working on strengthening her posture. I thought, ‘This might be a great way for her to get exercise and have fun.’ ”
Ongoing physical therapy gets tedious, Amy said, and she felt it was important to keep Claire motivated. When they returned home from Pennsylvania, Amy started Claire at a lesson barn in Odessa, Florida.
“After six months, the therapist was so impressed by how much her posture had improved that she thought Claire was working hard on her at-home workouts only,” Amy said. “When I told her that Claire had been horseback riding, she insisted that Claire continue as much as possible. That day, we went home, and I told my husband we were buying a pony.”
Claire continued riding at the lesson barn for a bit, and then moved to train with Shannon Dickinson out of Ravenwood Farm, owned by Kevin and Mary Eufemia, in Palm Harbor, Florida. As Claire continued to improve in her riding, Dickinson made a suggestion to Amy in June 2020: They should try to get Claire qualified for Pony Finals.
“I didn’t even know this was a possible goal for her,” Amy said. “But the more I thought about it, the more the idea grew on us.”
In July 2020, Amy, her husband and their four children moved from Florida to Frisco, Texas. Soon after, the Pony Finals goal solidified, thanks to a fundraiser for another young rider, Alexis Halbert, who had been injured in a fall.
“At first, I didn’t really have much education about Pony Finals,” Claire said. But when her family decided to participate in the Virtual Pony Finals fundraiser for Halibert, a call Claire received from top professional Jimmy Torano focused her like a laser beam.
“He really went above and beyond, giving her tips, advice and compliments,” Amy said. “For Claire to hear praise from such an accomplished rider and trainer was such a thrill and a special experience. I think that really confirmed the dream for her.”
Amy was determined to find a trainer who could help Claire achieve her dream. That’s when they found Horn, with whom Claire has been training for a year now.
To achieve Claire’s goal, Horn felt that she needed to find Claire a pony to lease that was already qualified for Pony Finals.
“We needed a pony that was trustworthy and that Claire wouldn’t get hurt on,” Horn said. “I bred Welsh ponies for 10 years—I really like the Rollingwoods bloodline. They’re bred for their wonderful temperaments.”
The Younts began their search in November 2020. Horn found Rollingwoods Give It Up, a 12-year-old gray medium Welsh pony, in Pennsylvania. “Lola” checked all of the boxes for Horn and was already qualified in the medium pony division for Pony Finals 2021.
When Claire tried Lola, she decided immediately that the mare was the one.
“I sat on several other ponies, but when I got on Lola I loved her so much,” she said. “She is a lot of fun.”
Lola arrived at Prospering Farm on New Year’s Eve, but due to bad weather and a longer-than-usual trailer trip, she arrived with a respiratory infection that took several weeks to clear up.
“Claire couldn’t ride her for that period of time, so she groomed her every day and spent time taking care of her,” Amy said. “Lola is a sweetheart and very cuddly.”
Once Lola’s infection cleared, Claire started riding and practicing on her.
“My left arm is one of my toughest challenges while riding,” Claire explained. “I also had to get my left leg a lot stronger to help guide Lola and tell her where to go.”
Amy credits Horn with creating a plan to help Claire in the saddle.
“Susan has always been great about helping Claire to be a successful rider despite her injury,” Amy said. “She gave Claire a workout plan to do at home to get her left arm and leg stronger.”
Horn took Claire and Lola to several shows over the next couple of months to gain experience in the ring. “We have a wonderful local circuit down here, so I don’t have to travel as much anymore,” Horn said.
The shows helped Claire hone her skills, but with less pressure because Lola was already qualified for Pony Finals.
Or was she?
Getting Creative To Get It Done
By the beginning of June, Claire still hadn’t received an invitation to Pony Finals, and Amy was getting concerned. While the family was on vacation in Montana, Amy called the U.S. Equestrian Federation, where someone explained that, due to a membership issue, the points that Lola previously accrued toward Pony Finals did not count. Lola was not, in fact, qualified. Amy hung up the phone, not sure what to do.
“My first thought was, ‘How am I going to tell my child that she’s not going to Pony Finals?’ ” said Amy. “My second thought was, ‘What can we do to fix this?’ We didn’t have much time—the qualifying period for Pony Finals ended on July 1, 2021.”
Amy immediately called Horn, who was in California visiting her father: There was one more nearby A-rated show in the qualifying period, The Blue Ribbon Festival in Waco, Texas, June 16-20. But Horn was still going to be in California, and one of Claire’s sisters had a church confirmation on June 19, so Amy was unable to take Claire to the show. This forced everyone to get creative.
“I couldn’t miss my other daughter’s confirmation, so I called my sister from Pennsylvania and said, ‘Hey, you want to come take Claire to this show?’ ” Amy said. “Of course she said yes and came on down.”
Horn called one of her fellow trainers, Julie Holmquest from Stony Glen Stables, to take Claire to the show. Julie was happy to fill in and help Claire out.
“It was very easily resolved; we talked at length about it, and I gave Julie specific instructions,” Horn explained. “They sent me videos of Claire’s rounds; it was nice to be a part of it even from far away.”
Claire and Lola claimed the reserve championship ribbon, and her dream was back on track. “Prior to this show, Claire had only competed at one other A-rated show,” Amy explained. “We didn’t want Claire to know about the mix-up because we thought she would do better if she thought she was just practicing. We kept the mood light and it worked!”
“I think it was better that no one told me Lola wasn’t qualified before we went to that show—I would have freaked out,” Claire said. “It was cool to feel like I qualified her myself. It made me feel accomplished and more confident going into Pony Finals.”
With the dream now a reality, Horn got right back to preparing Claire and Lola.
“In addition to her group lessons, Claire is taking private lessons with me once a week so we can practice opening Lola’s step down the longer lines,” Horn said. “The lines are longer for the medium division, and I want Claire to feel ready to take it on.”
Over the years, Horn has taken many riders to their first Pony Finals. “I’ve given them the tools—they just have to use them,” Horn explained. “All of the work has been done; you cannot be training when you get to Pony Finals. I want them to enjoy the experience and have fun.”
In addition to her extra practices on horseback, Claire is also preparing herself mentally for this experience.
“My main goal is to have rounds that I am happy with and proud of,” Claire said. “I want to feel accomplished and confident going in and out of the ring.”
Horn is hopeful that she can find a large pony for Claire to ride and qualify for the 2022 Pony Finals. “The first year at Pony Finals is always tough,” Horn said. “If you get to go for a second year, you’re more prepared and know what to expect. I want her to have that second opportunity.”
No matter what the outcome of this year’s Pony Finals, Amy is thrilled with the journey that this dream has taken them on.
“I’m super proud of Claire for never giving up,” Amy said. “She just keeps trying and working hard. It warms my heart to look back and realize how many wonderful horse people came together to encourage Claire and help her reach her goal.”